Thirteen years ago today I was standing near the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking across the East River as the World Trade Center burned. Today marks the 13th anniversary of the September attacks on New York and Washington. This has always been a difficult anniversary for me, and so many others who were touched by the attacks. My mind wants to shut out the horrors of that day, to minimize the attacks by telling myself how much worse they would have been if they had happened later in the workday when more than 40,000 people could have been in the buildings. And when I cannot shut it out, I feel sorrow and guilt that we, as journalists, did not pay more attention to the clarion call that came on February 26, 1993, when Ramzi Yousef, the cousin of the author of the 9/11 attacks, detonated a 1,336-bomb under the North Tower.
We knew of the possibility that some other terrorist would come back for those buildings. To be sure, the 1993 attack led to changes and a strong response by government and aggressive investigations by media. But was it enough? Could we have done more to have helped the 3,000 people who perished? Could we have done more to have helped prevent the suffering of so many others?
The point of rehashing the past is not merely an ephemeral exploration of guilt and sorrow. Part of the reason we study our history is to learn lessons. This year, those lessons of 9/11 that enter my mind each year were juxtaposed to a photograph that one of my colleagues, Katie Stout, took on the campus of George Mason University. Yesterday, September 10th was International Suicide Prevention Day. The picture captured 1,100 backpacks lying on the ground, each representing one of the more than 1,100 college students lost to suicide each year. If they had included markers for all the people who commit suicide in a year – more than 40,000, the equivalent – it would have covered the entire George Mason University campus. It would have almost filled the trade center on a busy day. The picture was haunting.
As anyone who is touched by suicide knows, the news that a loved one has taken their own life comes out of the blue like those planes on 9/11, shocking the system and leaving us confused. But as the dust settles, there are also lessons there to be learned. Some of them relate to warning signs that we can pick up. Others relate to rationalizations we make and minimizations we apply. But one of the lessons has to do with survivor’s guilt. As any warrior who has lost someone in a battle will tell you, it is very easy to fall into survivor’s guilt and get lost in your own pain, sorrow and anger.
Brian Malmon was a bright and charming student at Columbia University in New York. Students who wrote about him in the Columbia Daily Spector, the daily student newspaper on campus, said Brian “wowed audiences with his performances, enlightened readers with his journalism and inspired friends with his wit.” But Brian had returned home to Potomac, Maryland in 1999. He took his life with a gun on March 24, 2000. What many of Brian’s friends may not have known was that he had developed the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of the persistent psychosis of schizophrenia with the powerful mood swings of bipolar disorder. In 2000, according to federal statistics, there were 29,266 Brian Malmons.
Estimates suggest that each suicide immediately affects six other people (175,607). Based on the suicide rates from 1997 to 2010, it is estimated that there was more than 6 million survivors of suicide – loved ones who have had to live with the aftermath – in the United States.
One of those survivors is Brian’s sister, Alison. Alison founded Active Minds, a national organization that, as they say, “uses students as the driving force to change the perception about mental health on college campuses.” Alison created a group on her campus at the University of Pennsylvania after her brother died and that group has grown into a network of 399 chapters across the country. Alison has learned many lessons from the loss of her brother and has helped others carry forward those lessons. It was Alison’s chapter at George Mason that laid out the backpacks.
On this day of remembrance for 9/11, let’s not forget about yesterday.
Remember the 3,000 who died on September 11 and the 40,000, the same number of people it would have taken to fill those buildings who will die from suicide this year.
And let's not forget the lessons we can learn from our losses -- the ones that Alison did when Brian died; the ones that led to that powerful remembrance and image yesterday that might remind someone to ask for help, to lend a hand or do something else that makes a world of difference.